Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome (1900)

I wish this book to be a strict record of fact, unmarred by exaggeration…

What is ‘the Bummel’?

Deliberately, but oddly, the book doesn’t explain what a Bummel is until the very last paragraph, where J, the narrator, writes:

‘A “Bummel”,’ I explained, ‘I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started. Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days. But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand. We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way. We have been much interested, and often a little tired. But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when ’tis over.’

Bummel is a German word, appropriately enough since the book describes a cycling tour around Germany. The American edition of the novel avoided this obscurity by being titled simply Three Men on Wheels.

Is Three Men on The Bummel a sequel to Three Men in a Boat?

Sort of. It was published in 1900, eleven years after his most famous work, Three Men in a Boat and features the exact same three characters – ‘J’ the narrator, George and Harris – 11 years further on, when two of them (J and Harris) have gotten married and had children.

What is it about?

It opens in the same way as Boat, with the same three chaps chatting and realising they need a break from their everyday lives. They consider hiring a boat for a sea cruise but remember various disasters when they’ve tried that before, at which point Harris suggests a cycling tour of Germany.

So if the twin narrative frames of Boat were the nature of boats and boating and descriptions of the River Thames and its surrounding towns and cities, the parallel frames in Bummel are comic meditations on the nature of cycling and descriptions of the Germany towns, cities and countryside which they pass through.

What was the bicycling craze?

The 1890s saw an outburst in the popularity of cycling. It was partly due to technical developments in 1880s which made bikes much easier to ride than the former, penny farthing, model, namely the invention of the ‘safety bicycle’ with its chain-drive transmission whose gear ratios allowed for smaller wheels without a loss of speed and then the invention of the pneumatic (inflatable air-filled) bicycle tire which made the whole experience significantly smoother, partly the ongoing development of mass manufacturing process which made bikes much more affordable.

So the two books have this in common: Boat was written to capitalise on the new fashion for pleasure boating on the Thames in the 1880s, and Bummel to capitalise on the 1890s fad for cycling.

(It’s worth noting that the up-and-coming young novelist H.G. Wells was one among many other authors who sought to take advantage of the new craze, publishing his light-hearted bicycling novel, The Wheels of Chance in 1896, between his two heavyweight science fiction classics, The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and The Invisible Man (1897).)

To quote a useful (American) blog on the subject:

The bicycling craze swept the nation in the 1890s, with insatiable demand keeping nearly 2,000 manufacturers in business. Numerous manuals were published to instruct riders on road etiquette, proper breathing and riding technique, and accident prevention. Sometimes referred to as steel horses, bikes were a cheaper, faster, and more adaptable means of transportation that fostered both self-reliance and sociability. Earlier uncomfortable and unsafe models transformed into safety bicycles featuring cushion and pneumatic tires, coaster brakes, and most importantly a drop frame that was easier for women to mount and navigate.

Which makes it all the stranger that there is actually almost no description at all of the actual bikes. We are told there’s one single bike and tandem, and that’s that. We’re not even told how they carry luggage and such; presumably it is sent ahead by train or somehow, but none of this is explained.

‘What bicycle did you say this was of yours?’ asked George.
Harris told him. I forget of what particular manufacture it happened to be; it is immaterial.
(Chapter ten)

But of course, it would have been of considerable interest, to keen cyclists in his own day and ever since.

Why is Three Men on the Bummel a disappointment?

I remember reading the Bummel immediately after the Boat 30 years ago and being disappointed. Three reasons:

1. Bachelors carefree When they were young bachelors they could do anything. They expected and forgave each other for their irresponsible antics, and so did the reader. The situation is transformed now they are family men and fathers. What is attractive in a 25 year old just starting a career feels immature in a 35 year old father.

2. Family men tied down Families add complexity. I admit to being confused by the entire first chapter of this book, confused about where it is set and who is speaking and who is related to whom. The second sentence is:

At this moment the door opened, and Mrs. Harris put her head in to say that Ethelbertha had sent her to remind me that we must not be late getting home because of Clarence.

Only in the next chapter did I firmly grasp that Ethelberta is J’s wife, Mrs Harris is Harris’s wife (could have been his mother) and – I’m still not sure, but think that Clarence must be J’s son. Anyway it took a bit of effort to figure out who was who and what was going on and effort is not what you want from a comic novel.

All this is in complete contrast to the opening of Boat where the setting is immediately clear and comprehensible: the three chaps are in someone’s apartment thinking about holidays and this segues into the brilliant extended passage about J’s hypochondria. The opening of Boat gripped me; the opening of Bummel confused and irritated me.

3. Cycling tour more random that a journey upriver But by far the most obvious reason why Bummel is less engaging than its predecessor is the setting. Boat follows a lazy boat trip along the River Thames, which, in itself, is packed with meaning and resonances and associations, historical, nautical and – to those of us who grew up or lived by the Thames – personal. Whatever flights of fancy ‘J’ indulges in, the narrative always returns to the simple, central plot of them slowly rowing or towing their way up the Thames. The very simplicity of the central theme is what allows for such wild and fanciful digressions.

Whereas a cycling holiday around Germany has at least 2 problems: 1. It is by its nature random; they could be going anywhere for any reason, there’s nothing compelling, there is no deeper logic to the narrative. 2. They could be anywhere. Next to none of its English readers, then or now, have any idea where the Black Forest or Hanover or Mecklenburg are. Whereas Boat had the deep, almost archetypical logic of the river, Bummel appears random and capricious. It may have many scenes of comedy as intense and fantastical as the previous book, but it lacks the slow steady underlying structure.

4. Less funny Sorry, but the simple fact of the matter is that a lot of Jerome’s comic digressions and sketches in this book are just less funny than in Boat.

5. Sometimes serious See the section below, about Mensurs.

Is it any good as a guide book?

No. I won’t give an exhaustive plot summary because there isn’t a lot of plot. There’s a rough itinerary of their progress around Germany but, even more so that Boat, it’s really just a pretext for a steady supply of digressions and comic tales, some short, some extending for 5, 6 or more pages.

Suddenly, with no mention of the sea crossing, they are in Hamburg, which is not described at all; a sentence later they are in Hanover.

There is an extended passage at the start of chapter 5 where the narrator describes his experiences working on a cheap periodical designed to convey ‘useful information’ on a huge range of topics to its naive readers, the titbits, snippets and advice in question generally having been cut and pasted out of cheap encyclopedias. (Presumably this genuinely funny passage was based on Jerome’s extensive experience as the editor of The Idler magazine, 1892 to 1897, and then of To-Day, 1893 to 1898.)

J tells a story about how a little boy misused a piece he wrote for the magazine about manufacturing hydrogen to cause a small explosion to comically justify why he made the editorial decision that BUmmel should contain no useful information whatsoever.

There will be no useful information in this book…nothing in the nature of practical instruction will be found, if I can help it, within these pages…There will be no description of towns, no historical reminiscences, no architecture, no morals…Lastly, in this book there will be no scenery.
(chapter 5)

This is quite funny as a comic conceit, but it strips away what might have been a useful structure to the text, not so much guide-book useful, but useful in creating some kind of narrative structure. Without even the pretence of trying to be useful, it really does become a long series of anecdotes, reminiscences, comic scenes and observations, many of which are funny, but it lacks the underlying imaginative punch or force or coherence which you want from a book.

Does it at least give their itinerary round Germany?

Up to a point. Although once they actually manage to get clear of England (which they only manage to do by chapter 6 of this 14-chapter book, so that almost half the book is digressive preamble), the first part of the ensuing travelogue is often little more than a name, a brief description, and then some extended comic digressions. Thus the text mentions Hamburg, Hanover, Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Nuremberg, Carlsbad, Stuttgart, Carlsruhe, Baden, which they seem to have travelled between exclusively by train. There is some guide book-style content. Here’s a taste:

Stuttgart is a charming town, clean and bright, a smaller Dresden. It has the additional attraction of containing little that one need to go out of one’s way to see: a medium-sized picture gallery, a small museum of antiquities, and half a palace, and you are through with the entire thing and can enjoy yourself.

Brief and pithy, and then it’s off on another comic anecdote. His deflating comments on Berlin are interesting:

Berlin is a disappointing town; its centre over-crowded, its outlying parts lifeless; its one famous street, Unter den Linden, an attempt to combine Oxford Street with the Champs Elysée, singularly unimposing, being much too wide for its size; its theatres dainty and charming, where acting is considered of more importance than scenery or dress, where long runs are unknown, successful pieces being played again and again, but never consecutively, so that for a week running you may go to the same Berlin theatre, and see a fresh play every night; its opera house unworthy of it; its two music halls, with an unnecessary suggestion of vulgarity and commonness about them, ill-arranged and much too large for comfort.

So when does the actual cycling come in?

It is only in chapter ten (of this 14-chapter book) when they arrive in Baden that, as the narrator puts it, ‘we started bicycling in earnest’, from which the reader deduces that all the previous destinations have been little more than tourist visits, with the bikes mostly consigned to the baggage car of trains.

It is here in Baden, that they finally start the actual cycling holiday.

We planned a ten days’ tour, which, while completing the Black Forest, should include a spin down the Donau-Thal, which for the twenty miles from Tuttlingen to Sigmaringen is, perhaps, the finest valley in Germany…

But:

We did not succeed in carrying out our programme in its entirety.

As far as I can tell the cycling part of the tour takes them from Baden and features Todtmoos, Waldshut, ‘through Alt Breisach and Colmar to Münster; whence we started a short exploration of the Vosges range’, Barr and St Ottilienberg.

Comic moments, sometimes

Patriotism

Harris is inclined to be chronically severe on all British institutions… George, the opposite to Harris, is British to the core. I remember George quite patriotically indignant with Harris once for suggesting the introduction of the guillotine into England.
‘It is so much neater,’ said Harris.
‘I don’t care if it is,’ said George; ‘I’m an Englishman; hanging is good enough for me.’

The disastrous sea cruise

The long, long story about the time J and his wife hired a boat for a sea cruise and the extreme laziness of the captain, which dominates chapter 2, I found almost completely unfunny. Similarly, there was a long passage about the narrator’s fictional Uncle Podger and the mayhem he causes in his house every time he leaves for work, which wasn’t a patch on the brilliantly funny description of the same Uncle Podger trying to hang a picture on the wall in Boat.

The hose fight

There is a funny description of Harris getting involved in a fight with a man who was hosing down the road outside Hanover and splashed a pretty woman cyclist, which leads to general mayhem.

German kisses

George visits a shop to buy a cushion (Kissen) but by mistake asks for a kiss (Kuss) leading the shop girls to collapse in fits of giggles, though not the reader.

Prague, windows and guides

Having read a very long book about the Thirty Years War recently, which starts with the Defenestration of Prague in 1618, when the disgruntled Protestant estates threw two royal governors out of a window of the Hradčany Castle, I appreciated his joke that the history of Prague would have been much more peaceful if only they’d their houses and castles ‘possessed windows less large and temptingly convenient.’

In Prague they hire a guide for the day who takes them all round town and doesn’t stop talking in a rough mix of German and Slavonic. It is only late in the day they realise that almost he’s been saying hasn’t been elaborate descriptions of historic architecture but has a prolonged sales pitch for a patent hair restorer lotion the man has invented.

It is interesting that Jerome comments on the fierce enmity between German-speaking and Czech-speaking populations of Prague. Guides tell them not to speak German in certain parts of the city or they’ll get beaten up. This reinforces the prolonged explanation of the ethnic animosity given in Ernst Pawel’s excellent biography of Franz Kafka who was 7 years old when this book was published.

German law and order

Jerome has an extended comic disquisition on the German mania for order.

Your German likes his view from the summit of the hill, but he likes to find there a stone tablet telling him what to look at, find a table and bench at which he can sit to partake of the frugal beer and ‘belegte Semmel’ he has been careful to bring with him. If, in addition, he can find a police notice posted on a tree, forbidding him to do something or other, that gives him an extra sense of comfort and security.

And:

In Germany there is no nonsense talked about untrammelled nature. In Germany nature has got to behave herself, and not set a bad example to the children. A German poet, noticing waters coming down as Southey describes, somewhat inexactly, the waters coming down at Lodore, would be too shocked to stop and write alliterative verse about them. He would hurry away, and at once report them to the police. Then their foaming and their shrieking would be of short duration.

German regulations

And, naturally enough, for a (sort of) travel book set in Germany, the book has many passages describing the national character and especially the complicated nature of their laws. For example, none of our heroes appreciate the fact that you need not one but three tickets to travel on a train: one for general train travel, one for travel on a particular train, and one to specify whether you are seated or standing. George ignores this and related rules and is fined a hefty sum.

Our heroes are arrested

On the same theme of Order and Rules, the narrator is arrested because he takes a bicycle off a train which is just about to depart the station which he mistakenly believes is George’s. Only when he catches up with George does he realise George has his bicycle and the one the narrator has taken is some innocent German’s. He turns to see the train steaming out the station. He tries to stash it inconspicuously but is spotted by a typically officious German official. He only escapes actual prison because he happens to know a well-placed official in the town (Carlsbad) who testifies to his good character.

All of which leads to reflections on the ‘frequency with which one gets into trouble here in Germany’ and he gives a comic list of German bylaws. In Germany:

  • you must not wear fancy dress in the streets
  • you must not feed horses, mules, or donkeys, whether your own or those belonging to other people
  • you must not shoot a crossbow in the street
  • you must not ramble about after dark ‘in droves’
  • you must not throw anything out of a window
  • you must not joke with a policeman: it is treating them with disrespect
  • you must absolutely positively not walk on the grass
  • you must sit on the correct benches provided, marked for adults or for children
  • you must not leave your front door unlocked after ten o’clock at night, and you must not play the piano in your own house after eleven

Not very enticing, is it? ‘Go for a relaxing holiday in Germany and get arrested for laws you didn’t even know existed!’ is not a very convincing tourist slogan.

In Germany there is no law against a man standing on his head in the middle of the road; the idea has not occurred to them. One of these days a German statesman, visiting a circus and seeing acrobats, will reflect upon this omission. Then he will straightway set to work and frame a clause forbidding people from standing on their heads in the middle of the road, and fixing a fine. This is the charm of German law: misdemeanour in Germany has its fixed price.

German prams

Or take the humble pram. Apparently the Germans had a world of laws regarding what you may or may not do with a perambulator, which he cheerfully describes in all their absurdity, concluding, with typically Jeromian mischief:

I should say that in Germany you could go out with a perambulator and get into enough trouble in half an hour to last you for a month. Any young Englishman anxious for a row with the police could not do better than come over to Germany and bring his perambulator with him.

The deceptions of advertising

Plenty of contemporaries noticed and complained about the explosion in advertising during the 1890s and 1900s, in magazines, newspapers and increasingly intrusive hoardings. Jerome takes the mickey out of posters which very deceptively make cycling look wonderfully easy and relaxing and contrasts it with the often very hard work of puffing up a steep hill in Germany.

Generally speaking, the rider is a lady, and then one feels that, for perfect bodily rest combined with entire freedom from mental anxiety, slumber upon a water-bed cannot compare with bicycle-riding upon a hilly road. No fairy travelling on a summer cloud could take things more easily than does the bicycle girl, according to the poster.

Cycling and women’s liberation

Interestingly, Jerome confirms the comments of social historians I’ve been reading that bicycling amounted to a real social revolution and, in particular, liberated women, giving them an entirely new mobility, and, as a result, transforming the freedom of young couples to ‘date’ far from the eyes of their parents.

Occasionally the poster pictures a pair of cyclists; and then one grasps the fact how much superior for purposes of flirtation is the modern bicycle to the old-fashioned parlour or the played-out garden gate. He and she mount their bicycles, being careful, of course, that such are of the right make. After that they have nothing to think about but the old sweet tale. Down shady lanes, through busy towns on market days, merrily roll the wheels of the ‘Bermondsey Company’s Bottom Bracket Britain’s Best,’ or of the ‘Camberwell Company’s Jointless Eureka.’.. And the sun is always shining and the roads are always dry. No stern parent rides behind, no interfering aunt beside, no demon small boy brother is peeping round the corner…

And in the final chapter, where he delivers an extended review of the German character circa 1900, Jerome makes a special place for the German version of the New Woman sweeping Europe:

The German woman…is changing rapidly—advancing, as we call it. Ten years ago no German woman caring for her reputation, hoping for a husband, would have dared to ride a bicycle: to-day they spin about the country in their thousands. The old folks shake their heads at them; but the young men, I notice, overtake them and ride beside them. Not long ago it was considered unwomanly in Germany for a lady to be able to do the outside edge. Her proper skating attitude was thought to be that of clinging limpness to some male relative. Now she practises eights in a corner by herself, until some young man comes along to help her. She plays tennis, and, from a point of safety, I have even noticed her driving a dog-cart.

The insular English

In several places he satirises the English for their complete and utter failure to learn any foreign language, to get quickly exasperated with any foreigner who is dim enough not to speak fluent English, and the tendency of the English not to simplify their language when dealing with a foreigner, but to repeat the same thing, in difficult idiomatic English, but louder, a phenomenon I have observed countless times.

‘It is very disgraceful,’ I agreed. ‘Some of these German workmen know hardly any other language than their own.’

Taken alongside his comparison of the English and German education systems (the German infinitely superior) shows how some cultural stereotypes (the English are badly educated and useless at languages, the Germans are excellently educated and speak English among other languages, fluently) just never change.

German student duelling clubs

There’s some lovely frivolity in the cycling chapters, but the entire book ends with some unexpectedly serious thoughts. Jerome describes at length German student duelling societies which he candidly considers disgusting and squalid. They were expensive to join and the sole purpose was to spend time in a greasy dirty room with one opponent and two seconds, both your bodies well protected but your faces exposed to the slashes of heavy broadswords. The aim was to acquire as many impressive cuts as possible, which were then tended by not very competent student doctors and result in extravagant scars, in faces ‘cut and gashed, which prove your manliness and social status and are much desired by eligible young ladies. It was ‘a cruel and brutal game’.

Jerome describes the entire culture as being as inexplicable to outsiders but making perfect sense to insiders, as being as compelling to insiders, as bullfighting in Spain or fox hunting in England. But Jerome doesn’t find it at all funny. He thinks it brutalises both participants and arouses in onlookers ‘nothing but evil’.

Jerome on German character

Jerome had a good understanding of Germany. Soon after the the cycling trip the book was based on, he took his wife and children to live in Dresden for two years. When the First World War broke out 12 years later, Jerome made himself unpopular by speaking out against the torrent of anti-German propaganda the conflict unleashed in the press. When the many jokes wear off, you are left pondering his descriptions of the Germans as a nation obsessed with orders and regulations, over-willing to take instructions from every policeman or military officer.

Individualism makes no appeal to the German voter. He is willing, nay, anxious, to be controlled and regulated in all things… The German citizen is a soldier, and the policeman is his officer. The policeman directs him where in the street to walk, and how fast to walk. At the end of each bridge stands a policeman to tell the German how to cross it. Were there no policeman there, he would probably sit down and wait till the river had passed by. At the railway station the policeman locks him up in the waiting-room, where he can do no harm to himself. When the proper time arrives, he fetches him out and hands him over to the guard of the train, who is only a policeman in another uniform. The guard tells him where to sit in the train, and when to get out, and sees that he does get out. In Germany you take no responsibility upon yourself whatever. Everything is done for you, and done well. You are not supposed to look after yourself; you are not blamed for being incapable of looking after yourself; it is the duty of the German policeman to look after you.

And with an officer class trained at university in the enjoyment and infliction of disfigurement and pain.

We prate about our civilisation and humanity, but those of us who do not carry hypocrisy to the length of self-deception know that underneath our starched shirts there lurks the savage, with all his savage instincts untouched…

And:

The German idea of it would appear to be: “blind obedience to everything in buttons.” It is the antithesis of the Anglo-Saxon scheme; but as both the Anglo-Saxon and the Teuton are prospering, there must be good in both methods. Hitherto, the German has had the blessed fortune to be exceptionally well governed; if this continue, it will go well with him. When his troubles will begin will be when by any chance something goes wrong with the governing machine. But maybe his method has the advantage of producing a continuous supply of good governors; it would certainly seem so…

Or not.

Summary

After a clumsy start, and some long, not very funny stories set in England and/or involving wives, the book gets more interesting when it actually gets to Germany in chapter 6, and, in my opinion, really blooms when they finally get to the actual cycling holiday bit in chapter 10.

A final thought is the odd tonal imbalance in Jerome, or the overlapping of historical periods. What I mean is that his naughty schoolboy relishing of hi-jinks and breaking the law and getting into comedy fights is completely at odds with the stuffy, mutton chops side-whiskers mental image we have of Victorian men, it seems hugely more modern. One minute he’s describing the fight over the water hose, which sounds like utterly contemporary, the next he is talking about chaperones and how young ladies are supervised by their families in drawing rooms and dances which takes us right back to Victorian values.

And then there’s the fantastical Monty Python aspect. He begins a digression about how you find more breeds of dog in Germany than in England but almost immediately steps over a boundary into the fantastical and absurd.

George stopped a dog in Sigmaringen and drew our attention to it. It suggested a cross between a codfish and a poodle. I would not like to be positive it was not a cross between a codfish and a poodle.

Jerome’s signature note is not the ‘gentle Edwardian humour’ I associated him with before I reread these books, it is the continual schoolboy urge to push every comic conceit far beyond the bounds of reason, into the utterly surreal.

I do not know what the German breeder’s idea is; at present he retains his secret. George suggests he is aiming at a griffin. There is much to bear out this theory… Yet I cannot bring myself to believe that such are anything more than mere accidents. The German is practical…about a house, a griffin would be so inconvenient: people would be continually treading on its tail. My own idea is that what the Germans are trying for is a mermaid, which they will then train to catch fish.

Or:

Orchards exist in the Vosges mountains in plenty; but to trespass into one for the purpose of stealing fruit would be as foolish as for a fish to try and get into a swimming bath without paying.

This is the wonderfully fantastical Jeromian note and, at the end of the day Bummel is not as good as Boat because in the later book we hear less of it, it is often more strained and contrived, and, in the final chapter completely eclipsed by the extended meditation on the German character which can’t help but evoke dark thoughts of the terrible events which were to come.


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Three Men in a Boat (To say nothing of the dog) by Jerome K. Jerome (1889)

George said: ‘Let’s go up the river.’ He said we should have fresh air, exercise and quiet; the constant change of scene would occupy our minds (including what there was of Harris’s); and the hard work would give us a good appetite, and make us sleep well.

Three Men in A Boat is routinely included in any list of the funniest books ever written in any language. It describes the lazy dawdling progress of three late-Victorian ‘chaps’ on a 2-week boating holiday up the River Thames from Kingston upon Thames to Oxford and back again. Despite being slapdash in ‘plot’ and very uneven in tone, it was wildly popular upon publication, has sold solidly ever since and been translated into loads of languages. Why?

Guidebook to a new type of activity

One answer is that the book caught the spirit of a moment when commercial activity on the Thames had all but died out, almost the entire barge traffic which dominated it having been decimated by the railway revolution of the 1840s and 1850s. As a result a new fashion had been developing since the 1870s for boating as a leisure activity. In fact at various points the narrator complains about the Thames becoming too busy with pleasure craft, with thousands of skiffs and rowboats and his particular bete noire, the steam pleasure cruiser.

The book was originally conceived as a mixture of history book and tourist guide to cash in on the newish pastime, and quite literally showed ‘how to do it’, with advice on how to hire a boat, what kind to get (our heroes hire ‘a Thames camping skiff’, ‘a double-sculling skiff’), an itinerary with top sights to spot, what to expect, how far to expect to travel each day, with historical notes about Romans and Saxons and kings and queens and the castles and monasteries of each Thames-side settlement.

‘We won’t take a tent,’ suggested George; ‘we will have a boat with a cover. It is ever so much simpler, and more comfortable.’

Admittedly the book as we have it now almost completely submerges this factual information in prolonged comic digressions and humorous sketches, but as a practical guide, it still has a vestigial interest: most of the route, the locks and so on are unchanged and most of the pubs and inns named are still open. Here’s an example of Jerome’s factual but dreamy guidebook style:

From Wallingford up to Dorchester the neighbourhood of the river grows more hilly, varied, and picturesque. Dorchester stands half a mile from the river. It can be reached by paddling up the Thame, if you have a small boat; but the best way is to leave the river at Day’s Lock, and take a walk across the fields. Dorchester is a delightfully peaceful old place, nestling in stillness and silence and drowsiness. Dorchester, like Wallingford, was a city in ancient British times; it was then called Caer Doren, ‘the city on the water.’ In more recent times the Romans formed a great camp here, the fortifications surrounding which now seem like low, even hills. In Saxon days it was the capital of Wessex. It is very old, and it was very strong and great once. Now it sits aside from the stirring world, and nods and dreams.

How to holiday

The second element is it shows you what tone to approach such a holiday in, namely one of humorous self-deprecation. It is not only a guide to the route and its sights, but the mood and manner of insouciant larking around to take on such a holiday.

The book is less of a guidebook than a toolkit of whimsy, humour, comedy, irony, pranks, mishaps and ironic reversals. Reading any passage at random makes you feel lighter and gayer. In fact it is a model, in its simplicity and sustained good humour and sheer fun, of what a modest staycation should be like and, as most of us know to our cost, rarely is.

Humour

This brings us to the third and most obvious element which is the humour, the comedy, and the most striking thing about the book which is how incredibly well the humour has lasted. Much of Three Men in a Boat is still very funny indeed. Jerome manages to turn almost every incident and passing thought into comedy with the power of his whimsy and frivolous invention.

I was hooked from the moment in paragraph three when the narrator describes what a hypochondriac he is, how the minute he reads any advert for a new medicine he becomes convinced he has all the symptoms of the relevant illness, and proceeds to develop this into a comic riff about how he once went to the British Museum to read up on a slight ailment he thought he had, and then found his eye diverted by another entry in the medical encyclopedia and, in the end, ended up reading the entire thing from cover to cover, convinced he had every symptom of every ailment listed in the book, from Ague to Zymosis.

I had walked into that reading-room a happy, healthy man. I crawled out a decrepit wreck.

He doesn’t stop there. His new-found health anxiety led him to pay a worried visit to a doctor friend who  sounded him out, discovered where he’d been and what he’d been reading and calmly gave him a prescription for… exercise, fresh air and to stop poking about in subjects he didn’t understand!

The narrative opens on this mood of restless and entirely fictional hypochondria, as the narrator (‘J’) and his two pals meet up for a drink and a pipe, and all agree they need some kind of break, some kind of rest cure… This leads into a comic consideration of all the alternative types of holiday available with the invariable disasters they entail, with a particular lingering taking a sea cruise and a vivid comic description of the prolonged sea sickness it so often leads to… until:

George said: ‘Let’s go up the river.’

They discuss the novel charms of a slow cruise up the River Thames… And off we go. (Actually, as the book progresses, we discover that they have been on quite a few boat trips up the Thames before, but somehow that doesn’t dampen the initial boyish enthusiasm.)

Play acting

And this is another aspect of it: the three chaps in the boat are in a sense playing at being late-Victorian larks. There is a strong element of play-acting, of theatricality, in many of the best scenes and this encourages the reader to take part in the acting.

When I was a student there were chaps who liked to wear boaters and blazers and hire punts on the river. They were acting the part of chaps punting along the willow-strewn river while their lady loves lay back among the pillows, trailing one hand in the river and holding a glass of chilled champagne in the other. It encourages a spirit of acting.

The models of the narrator’s two chums, Harris and George were, in real life, the founder of a London printing business (Harris) and a banker who would go on to become a senior manager in Barclays (George). But not on this trip. On this jolly jaunt they are acting the parts of incompetents and fools larking around.

Male friendship

Which brings us to the chappiness of the chaps, the fact that the book is not only a record of an idyllic trip through an idealised bit of English landscape, but is also an idealised account of male friendship. If only our real friends were as whimsical, funny, amusing and doggedly loyal as the chaps in the boat.

Having gone on various all-male holidays myself, I know that a key element of them is the sense of exaggerating each other’s shortcomings and characteristics. Things always go wrong and the sign of a good holiday, and of a good relationship, is to retain good spirits and a sense of humour whatever happens.

Without wanting to sound too pompous about it, a key element in this kind of practical, camping, outdoors-style venture is the element of forgiveness. If one of you sets the tent up all wrong so that it falls down in the middle of the night in the middle of a rainstorm, it takes a lot of character, and of love, not to get angry but to keep your sense of humour.

One way to manage this is to turn each other into cartoons. I had a couple of friends who went on an epic journey across South America. They had difficult times made worse by drunkenness and general incompetence. They discovered early on that the way to avoid anger and arguments was to treat each other as cartoon caricatures of themselves, so they weren’t criticising each other (which is hurtful) but were attacking each other’s cartoon avatars (which was funny and defused tensions).

In fact they developed a particularly powerful variation on this theme which was to mimic a couple of  fictional sports commentators, Brian and Peter, alternating commentary on their real-life activities in wheedling, whining, microphone voices of two fictional

‘In a long career of cocking up travel arrangements, surely this is Dave’s biggest screw-up of all, turning up at the airport a day after their flight had left. Brian.’

‘Thank you, Peter, yes in a lifetime of commentating on drunken Brits fouling up abroad, I think this definitely takes gold medal. It looks like young Dave now has no serious competition for the Most Incompetent Tourist of the Year award which he has, to be fair, put so much effort into winning’.

By turning each other into comic caricatures, male friends can be quite brutally critical about each other, but in a way which defuses tension and increases male bonding.

George and Harris

So the three chaps are not only characters but caricatures, types. Very early in the book we learn that Harris is caricatured as the Lazy One.

Harris said he didn’t think George ought to do anything that would have a tendency to make him sleepier than he always was, as it might be dangerous. He said he didn’t very well understand how George was going to sleep any more than he did now, seeing that there were only twenty-four hours in each day, summer and winter alike; but thought that if he did sleep any more, he might just as well be dead, and so save his board and lodging.

And the drinker.

I wonder now, supposing Harris, say, turned over a new leaf, and became a great and good man, and got to be Prime Minister, and died, if they would put up signs over the public-houses that he had patronised: ‘Harris had a glass of bitter in this house;’ ‘Harris had two of Scotch cold here in the summer of ’88;’ ‘Harris was chucked from here in December, 1886.’

No, there would be too many of them! It would be the houses that he had never entered that would become famous. ‘Only house in South London that Harris never had a drink in!’ The people would flock to it to see what could have been the matter with it.

And the glutton:

Harris said there was nothing like a swim before breakfast to give you an appetite.  He said it always gave him an appetite.  George said that if it was going to make Harris eat more than Harris ordinarily ate, then he should protest against Harris having a bath at all.

While George is caricatured as Dim, so that everyone can enjoy feigning surprise every time he makes a sensible suggestion (which he does, in fact, all the time; the whole idea of a trip up the river is his, after all). George always knows ‘a little place just round the corner’ which will serve a jolly fine whisky or brandy or whatever the occasion demands. ‘George said he felt thirsty (I never knew George when he didn’t)’.

And ‘J’, the narrator, thinks of himself as the imaginative, soulful one who does all the organising, a contention the other two vehemently deny.

Englishness

A central aspect of Englishness is a kind of dogged incompetence. I have Canadian cousins and I am quietly appalled at how good they are at everything. Their jobs, their cars, their airplane deals, the house on the lake, their camping, their barbecues, they’re just super capable at everything.

By comparison, whenever I try a barbecue the sausages are burned on one side, raw on the other or smell of paraffin; I not only can’t handle the massive armoured cars most people drive around in these days, but they terrify me. Whenever I went camping the inner tent always touched the outer tent so that the rain came through and, generally, dripped precisely on my face or that of my angry partner. I went canoeing once but, although I’m quite confident on water, ended up going round in circles and eventually gave it up in frustration.

In all these respects and more I think of myself as very English, in living a life of quiet frustration, putting up with endless humiliation by shop assistants, local government officials, crooked financial advisers, maladroit tradesmen, pestering insurance salesmen and countless other rip-off merchants, living in a small, over-crowded, angry country run by buffoons, painfully conscious all the time of my own failings and lack of ability.

For a whole year I’ve been meaning to fix the trellis currently leaning against the fence to the fence with battens and screws so I can plant some climbers for it. But in order to do that I need to figure out where to go to buy the wood to make the battens, how to saw them to length, which make of electric screwdriver to buy (battery or cord) and then which size of screws. It is a forest of impenetrable obstacles. I wonder if it’ll ever get done. Can’t help feeling my Canadian cousins would have done it in half an hour and then got on with organising another delicious barbecue.

(I’d written that paragraph, looking out the window at the trellis, before I came across the sequence in chapter 3 of Three Men In A Boat describing at comic length the legendary incompetence of the narrator’s Uncle Podger and the mayhem he causes his entire extended family, the servants and neighbouring shopkeepers in his cack-handed attempts to simply hang a picture on a wall. The inability to do even the simplest household chore reminds me of all Charles Pooter’s domestic accidents in Diary of a Nobody. Both books show that being useless at even the simplest household tasks has been a hallmark of English comedy for at least 130 years.)

Heroic failure is the English way. As no end of commentators have pointed out, the British most remember their military disasters, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the siege of Mafeking, the massacre at Isandlwana, the Somme, Dunkirk and the Blitz. We like it when we’re being hammered. Until very recently our tennis players and our footballers have been notable for their dogged third-rateness (Tim Henman, any England squad since 1970).

American humour tends to be smart and snappy, a festival of fast-talking, wisecracking one-line-merchants from Groucho Marx through Cary Grant in his screwball comedies to Woody Allen. English humour is about fumbling and falling over things: Dad’s Army, Some Mothers Do Ave Em. Ooh Betty. They don’t like it up ’em, Captain Mainwaring. This tone of perplexed failure is perfectly captured in the narrator’s description of bathing in the sea from the start of the book:

It is the same when you go to the sea-side. I always determine—when thinking over the matter in London—that I’ll get up early every morning, and go and have a dip before breakfast, and I religiously pack up a pair of drawers and a bath towel. I always get red bathing drawers. I rather fancy myself in red drawers. They suit my complexion so. But when I get to the sea I don’t feel somehow that I want that early morning bathe nearly so much as I did when I was in town.

On the contrary, I feel more that I want to stop in bed till the last moment, and then come down and have my breakfast. Once or twice virtue has triumphed, and I have got out at six and half-dressed myself, and have taken my drawers and towel, and stumbled dismally off. But I haven’t enjoyed it. They seem to keep a specially cutting east wind, waiting for me, when I go to bathe in the early morning; and they pick out all the three-cornered stones, and put them on the top, and they sharpen up the rocks and cover the points over with a bit of sand so that I can’t see them, and they take the sea and put it two miles out, so that I have to huddle myself up in my arms and hop, shivering, through six inches of water. And when I do get to the sea, it is rough and quite insulting.

English weather

Foreigners often accuse the English of being obsessed with the weather. This is because it is so perverse and unpredictable. Occasionally we do actually have hot summers but my lifetime has been marked by confident predictions of ‘barbecue summers’ which end up being dismal washouts. Not that the English weather’s particularly interesting, it’s rare that you have really hot blue-sky summer days and, where I live in London, we rarely if ever have snow in winter. English weather is usually boring and mundane, lacking vivid extremes, like English culture generally. I read once in the CIA Handbook that for more than 50% of the time the English sky is grey and overcast. I remember it feeling like that during the entire premiership of John Major, 1990 to 1997.

Anyway, any adult English person has had the experience of organising a barbecue or birthday party or wedding reception outdoors in a garden or park or grand mansion only to have it rained off by steady, grey. ‘Rain stopped play’ is one of the commonest terms in cricket. It’s amazing that Wimbledon ever makes it to the final on schedule given the amount of time lost to English summer rain. The gloomy weather is a big part of that heavy-hearted sense of entirely predictable failure and disappointment which is at the heart of the English character.

Hence the national obsession with weather forecasts, on telly, the radio, in all the papers, despite the fact that any rational adult knows the weather forecast is usually wildly wrong. I remember looking at the BBC’s weather forecast for my part of London which told me it was hot and sunny despite the fact that, out the window, at that very minute it was chucking down with rain. As in so many big organisations, reliance technology meant the weather forecasters were relying more on their expensive computer model than looking out the bloody window.

Three Men In A Boat shows you that nothing has changed, the weather forecast was just as rubbish 130 years ago:

I remember a holiday of mine being completely ruined one late autumn by our paying attention to the weather report of the local newspaper. ‘Heavy showers, with thunderstorms, may be expected to-day,’ it would say on Monday, and so we would give up our picnic, and stop indoors all day, waiting for the rain.—And people would pass the house, going off in wagonettes and coaches as jolly and merry as could be, the sun shining out, and not a cloud to be seen.

‘Ah!’ we said, as we stood looking out at them through the window, ‘won’t they come home soaked!’

And we chuckled to think how wet they were going to get, and came back and stirred the fire, and got our books, and arranged our specimens of seaweed and cockle shells. By twelve o’clock, with the sun pouring into the room, the heat became quite oppressive, and we wondered when those heavy showers and occasional thunderstorms were going to begin.

‘Ah! they’ll come in the afternoon, you’ll find,’ we said to each other. ‘Oh, won’t those people get wet. What a lark!’

At one o’clock, the landlady would come in to ask if we weren’t going out, as it seemed such a lovely day.

‘No, no,’ we replied, with a knowing chuckle, ‘not we. We don’t mean to get wet—no, no.’

And when the afternoon was nearly gone, and still there was no sign of rain, we tried to cheer ourselves up with the idea that it would come down all at once, just as the people had started for home, and were out of the reach of any shelter, and that they would thus get more drenched than ever. But not a drop ever fell, and it finished a grand day, and a lovely night after it.

The next morning we would read that it was going to be a ‘warm, fine to set-fair day; much heat;’ and we would dress ourselves in flimsy things, and go out, and, half-an-hour after we had started, it would commence to rain hard, and a bitterly cold wind would spring up, and both would keep on steadily for the whole day, and we would come home with colds and rheumatism all over us, and go to bed.

Voilà the English national characteristics: the complete incompetence of the forecasters, the blithe indifference of the newspapers (or radio or telly) which publish this twaddle day after day, the utter unreliability of official information, the inevitability that whatever you decide to do will be wrong, and the one over-riding certainty of disappointment. A Philip Larkin world.

Hence, the one time our trio of chums need a cab to collect their stuff from the front door and take them to Waterloo station in a hurry the road, which is usually packed with empty cabs hurtling back and forth, is empty. Similarly, when they get to Waterloo they can’t find anyone who knows the platform for the train to Kingston.

Activities the English (in the shape of J, Harris and George) are doomed to fail at

  • going on an ocean cruise – seasickness
  • putting up a tent in the rain – recipe for homicidal rage
  • hanging a picture on a wall – reduce entire family to tears
  • swimming in the sea – cut your feet to ribbons and get half drowned
  • running a train system – it was an over-priced shambles in the 1880s and still is
  • washing their own clothes in the river – disaster
  • rigging up the hoops and canvas over the boat for the night – they manage to get tangled in the cloth and nearly throttled
  • cooking scrambled eggs – J had never heard of this dish before but Harris turns it into a burned mess
  • opening a tin of pineapple with a knife – impossible to do without serious injury
  • finding a room for the night in Datchet – never do this
  • singing a comic song after dinner – Harris should be banned from even trying
  • playing the bagpipes – when a young fellow J knew practiced at home the neighbours called the police and accused him of murdering his family

To say nothing of the dog

I’m not a dog person, but I appreciate that many English people are, and so I can see that the character of the dog Montmorency, a mischievous fox terrier, is a vital component in the story. He brings a warm, snuffling supplement to the human narrative, either getting into mischief or shedding an ironic light on the human shambles, adding the final cherry on the cake to many a comic moment.

Take the scene in chapter 14 where the chaps knock up a supposed Irish stew by combining the leftovers in the party’s food hamper:

I forget the other ingredients, but I know nothing was wasted; and I remember that, towards the end, Montmorency, who had evinced great interest in the proceedings throughout, strolled away with an earnest and thoughtful air, reappearing, a few minutes afterwards, with a dead water-rat in his mouth, which he evidently wished to present as his contribution to the dinner; whether in a sarcastic spirit, or with a genuine desire to assist, I cannot say.

A cat couldn’t do that, add that final comic touch. Any sensible cat would have sloped off long ago to the warm lap of a homely lady happy to stroke and feed it fishy titbits all day. A dog sticks it out through thick and thin, no matter how incompetent his master(s). Mind you, Montmorency is not quite the tail-wagging, faithful hound some people make out.

When first he came to live at my expense, I never thought I should be able to get him to stop long. I used to sit down and look at him, as he sat on the rug and looked up at me, and think: ‘Oh, that dog will never live. He will be snatched up to the bright skies in a chariot, that is what will happen to him.’

But, when I had paid for about a dozen chickens that he had killed; and had dragged him, growling and kicking, by the scruff of his neck, out of a hundred and fourteen street fights; and had had a dead cat brought round for my inspection by an irate female, who called me a murderer; and had been summoned by the man next door but one for having a ferocious dog at large, that had kept him pinned up in his own tool-shed, afraid to venture his nose outside the door for over two hours on a cold night; and had learned that the gardener, unknown to myself, had won thirty shillings by backing him to kill rats against time, then I began to think that maybe they’d let him remain on earth for a bit longer, after all.

To hang about a stable, and collect a gang of the most disreputable dogs to be found in the town, and lead them out to march round the slums to fight other disreputable dogs, is Montmorency’s idea of ‘life’.

And again:

Fox-terriers are born with about four times as much original sin in them as other dogs are, and it will take years and years of patient effort on the part of us Christians to bring about any appreciable reformation in the rowdiness of the fox-terrier nature.

And:

We spent two very pleasant days at Oxford. There are plenty of dogs in the town of Oxford. Montmorency had eleven fights on the first day, and fourteen on the second, and evidently thought he had got to heaven.

The dog is one more prompt for that amused exasperation which is the tone of the book throughout, that resigned tolerance of each other’s foibles (that’s to say inadequacies and incompetence), the cussed obstinacy of the universe, the stupidity of other river users, with the dog thrown in as an additional element of chaos and frustration.

Montmorency’s ambition in life is to get in the way and be sworn at. If he can squirm in anywhere where he particularly is not wanted, and be a perfect nuisance, and make people mad, and have things thrown at his head, then he feels his day has not been wasted.

To get somebody to stumble over him, and curse him steadily for an hour, is his highest aim and object; and, when he has succeeded in accomplishing this, his conceit becomes quite unbearable.

He came and sat down on things, just when they were wanted to be packed; and he laboured under the fixed belief that, whenever Harris or George reached out their hand for anything, it was his cold, damp nose that they wanted. He put his leg into the jam, and he worried the teaspoons, and he pretended that the lemons were rats, and got into the hamper and killed three of them before Harris could land him with the frying-pan.

Harris said I encouraged him. I didn’t encourage him. A dog like that don’t want any encouragement. It’s the natural, original sin that is born in him that makes him do things like that.

Montmorency helping to untangle the tow line

The dog speaks, by the way. It is given a variety of opinions and several passages of dialogue, once with the cat in Marlow High Street, once when it challenges the kettle to a fight. And it’s not the only normally non-speaking entity to be attributed agency. I was particularly taken with the story of his earliest attempt to sail a boat in which he and his friend struggled to even erect the mast and then managed to get themselves completely tangled up in the sail.

The impression on the mind of the sail seemed to be that we were playing at funerals, and that I was the corpse and itself was the winding-sheet. When it found that this was not the idea, it hit me over the head with the boom, and refused to do anything.

Digressions

Three Men In A Boat in a sense consists almost entirely of digressions. It’s as if, having laid out the narrative of what actually happened in its logical order, Jerome then pondered how he could exaggerate every single incident into the most preposterous comic riff possible.

He has a fantastic comic conceit, i.e. the ability to take a simple idea and develop it into a preposterous and fantastical series of exaggerations. Thus when they’re discussing what food to take, they all solemnly agree no cheese, which prompts J to launch a fairly straightforward joke about the way cheese is very smelly.

For lunch, he said, we could have biscuits, cold meat, bread and butter, and jam—but no cheese. Cheese, like oil, makes too much of itself. It wants the whole boat to itself. It goes through the hamper, and gives a cheesy flavour to everything else there. You can’t tell whether you are eating apple-pie or German sausage, or strawberries and cream. It all seems cheese. There is too much odour about cheese.

But this is only the beginning: mention of cheese leads the narrator to remember the time a friend bought some cheeses in Liverpool –

I remember a friend of mine, buying a couple of cheeses at Liverpool. Splendid cheeses they were, ripe and mellow, and with a two hundred horse-power scent about them that might have been warranted to carry three miles, and knock a man over at two hundred yards.

– a story which becomes steadily more inflated and preposterous over the next four pages, as the cheese proceeds to alienate all the passengers in the train back to London, his cab driver who collects him at the station. The wife of the man he transported it for announces she is moving out of her house (and taking the children) until the cheeses are removed, and then the story develops a surreal, almost horror story persistence as the narrator tries dumping the cheeses in a nearby canal only for the barge drivers to insist the smell is making them ill and that he trawls them back up; he next sneaks them into a mortuary, but the coroner complains that he is trying to wake the dead, and the entire, by this stage surreal and absurd fantasy, only comes to an end when he takes them all the way to the coast and buries them deep in the sand, although people can still smell their strong whiff, but (comically) attribute it to ‘bracing’ sea air.

So it’s: 1. a book of wonderful comic digressions, a kind of unscholarly, more mundane version of Tristram Shandy – but also 2. it struck me how extended these digressions are; he rarely stops a comic conceit after a sentence or two when he can carry it on for as many paragraphs as possible.

Look at the four paragraphs about Montmorency’s character quoted above. Jerome could have stopped after the first paragraph, he’s made his point, it’s very funny. But he presses on for another three paragraphs, milking the notion of Montmorency being a serious hindrance to anyone trying to pack a bag to the absolute max.

Or take the extended sequence about the utter rubbishness of weather forecasts which I quoted above. That’s only the beginning. The weather riff then goes on for twice as much again, leading into a prolonged passage about the barometer in a hotel in Oxford which obstinately pointed to ‘Dry weather’ while it was raining so hard the lower part of the town was flooded.

Probably the book’s central quality is the ability of these digressions to take a comic ball and run with it for a really extended period of time, never dropping it, but blowing the original comic balloon up to the size of a zeppelin.

The fantastical

This raises a third point, which is the tendency of many of the jokes to cross a border from the realistic  to the ridiculous and then continue on into the positively fantastical. Many if not most of J’s extended anecdotes have this quality of exorbitancy, meaning: ‘exceeding the bounds of custom, propriety, or reason’.

I realised this during the account of their inability to find the right platform at Waterloo for the train to Kingston. At first it is realistic, in the sense that big train stations often are chaotic. Then it becomes enjoyably farcical as porters, officials and even the station master give completely contradictory advice. But then it crosses a borderline from exaggeration into outright fantasy when they find a train driver who’ll take them wherever they want to go for half a crown, so they pay up and this man drives his train to Kingston, without telling the station authorities or any of the passengers aboard apart from our chums.

So we went to the high-level platform, and saw the engine-driver, and asked him if he was going to Kingston. He said he couldn’t say for certain of course, but that he rather thought he was. Anyhow, if he wasn’t the 11.5 for Kingston, he said he was pretty confident he was the 9.32 for Virginia Water, or the 10 a.m. express for the Isle of Wight, or somewhere in that direction, and we should all know when we got there. We slipped half-a-crown into his hand, and begged him to be the 11.5 for Kingston. ‘Nobody will ever know, on this line,’ we said, ‘what you are, or where you’re going. You know the way, you slip off quietly and go to Kingston.’

‘Well, I don’t know, gents,’ replied the noble fellow, ‘but I suppose some train’s got to go to Kingston; and I’ll do it. Gimme the half-crown.”

By this point it’s become as fantastical as a children’s story. You feel it’s only a small hop and skip and a jump from here to the Hogwarts Express. And then the punchline:

We learnt, afterwards, that the train we had come by was really the Exeter mail, and that they had spent hours at Waterloo looking for it and nobody knew what had become of it.

The book is generally described as a heart-warming story of a trio of chaps messing about in a boat. This element of fantastical exaggeration is surprisingly under-reported.

And excess. Here is the narrator descanting at length about the types of people who insist on fencing or chaining off their little bits of the Thames waterfront, or erecting officious noticeboards:

The sight of those notice-boards rouses every evil instinct in my nature. I feel I want to tear each one down, and hammer it over the head of the man who put it up, until I have killed him, and then I would bury him, and put the board up over the grave as a tombstone.

I mentioned these feelings of mine to Harris, and he said he had them worse than that. He said he not only felt he wanted to kill the man who caused the board to be put up, but that he should like to slaughter the whole of his family and all his friends and relations, and then burn down his house. This seemed to me to be going too far, and I said so to Harris; but he answered:

‘Not a bit of it. Serve ’em all jolly well right, and I’d go and sing comic songs on the ruins.’

People associate the book with mellow nostalgia, but I hope I’m showing that it’s quite a lot more extreme and disruptive than that suggests. There’s a surprising amount of this comic excess, talk of murdering and strangling and burning and trampling and so on.

There’s a good microcosm of the process in chapter 12 where in just a few sentences you can follow the thought process going from reasonable to exaggerated to manic.

Maidenhead itself is too snobby to be pleasant. It is the haunt of the river swell and his overdressed female companion. It is the town of showy hotels, patronised chiefly by dudes and ballet girls. It is the witch’s kitchen from which go forth those demons of the river—steam-launches!

(The more I read, the more I realised Jerome isn’t dealing in jokes; he writes entire comic sketches. Although he doesn’t do the deliberate surrealism, the way he carries a comic conceit from the funny onto the exaggerated and then to outlandish conclusions reminds me a bit of Monty Python. It is no surprise to learn that he started his career in the arts, in the theatre, as an actor, and wrote a dozen or so plays alongside his career as a prose writer and magazine editor.)

Purple prose and historical fantasias

This brings us to the last aspect of the book worth noting which is the continual advent, in between the extended comic digressions, of passages of over-ripe purple prose. This comes in two flavours: 1. soppy rustic idylls about nature and 2. historical fantasias when the author presents sub-Walter Scott descriptions of the passage of Good Queen Bess or some such historical personage through whatever historic old town or castle they’re boating past.

The many over-ripe nature passages are clearly written with his tongue firmly in his cheek:

The red sunset threw a mystic light upon the waters, and tinged with fire the towering woods, and made a golden glory of the piled-up clouds. It was an hour of deep enchantment, of ecstatic hope and longing. The little sail stood out against the purple sky, the gloaming lay around us, wrapping the world in rainbow shadows; and, behind us, crept the night.

We seemed like knights of some old legend, sailing across some mystic lake into the unknown realm of twilight, unto the great land of the sunset.

And are nearly always the prelude to an almighty thump of bathos. In this case J experiences this great communing with Nature at its most spiritual just before he steers their boat into a punt full of anglers who proceed to curse and excoriate them in extensive and colourful terms. So the purple passages are, at bottom, another type of joke, a variation on the idea of the extended comic passage.

Although some of them are maybe just meant to be happy, light and evocative, slightly tongue in cheek, but also capturing the beauty of unspoilt countrside.

Down to Cookham, past the Quarry Woods and the meadows, is a lovely reach. Dear old Quarry Woods! with your narrow, climbing paths, and little winding glades, how scented to this hour you seem with memories of sunny summer days! How haunted are your shadowy vistas with the ghosts of laughing faces! how from your whispering leaves there softly fall the voices of long ago!

Like P.G. Wodehouse a couple of generations later, the over-egging of these descriptions is part of their knowing, light, good humour.

2. A good example of his historical fantasias is when the trio reach Runnymede and J gives an extended imagining of Bad King John being forced to meet his rebellious Barons and taken on a barge to the island where he is obliged to sign the historic Magna Carta, all visions of bluff, manly, hearts-of-oak Englishmen.

the heart of King John sinks before the stern faces of the English fighting men, and the arm of King John drops back on to his rein, and he dismounts and takes his seat in the foremost barge. And the Barons follow in, with each mailed hand upon the sword-hilt, and the word is given to let go.

Slowly the heavy, bright-decked barges leave the shore of Runningmede. Slowly against the swift current they work their ponderous way, till, with a low grumble, they grate against the bank of the little island that from this day will bear the name of Magna Charta Island. And King John has stepped upon the shore, and we wait in breathless silence till a great shout cleaves the air, and the great cornerstone in England’s temple of liberty has, now we know, been firmly laid.

Many critics have objected to these passages as disrupting the flow of what they think of as a comic novel and feel ought to remain strictly in character as a Comic Novel. But I have already shown that the text is not as straightforwardly humorous as people think. To my mind both the rural visions and the historical fantasias are natural extensions of Jerome’s tendency to really extended comic fantasy. They are another type of tall tale. They share, along with the comic passages, the tendency to exorbitance, to overstep the bounds of ‘realism’ into fantasy.

Many critics have come down hard on these passages but, personally, I found them amusing and entertaining diversions, a relief from the need to be laughing all the time, so they added to the variety and pacing the text.

Also they have the charm of their time. It’s not as if we, nowadays, in 2021, get to read very much high-minded Victorian patriotic history. Modern historians are devoted to debunking the past and showing what a sexist, racist, slave-ridden society Britain has always been. It’s as pleasant to slip into Jerome’s manly, patriotic visions of English history as it is to pretend, for the duration of the reading, that one is a late-Victorian young buck messing about on the river.

Mock heroic

The mock heroic as a literary genre consists of:

satires or parodies that mock Classical stereotypes of heroes and heroic literature. Typically, mock-heroic works either put a fool in the role of the hero or exaggerate the heroic qualities to such a point that they become absurd.

Obviously Three Men In A Boat isn’t a mock heroic work in this sense but, like much comedy, it uses mock heroic techniques. All I mean by this is two things:

1. As an extension of his habit of slipping into extended historical fantasies, Jerome also slips, often in the space of a sentence, into humorously comparing one or other of his companions or the dog, to heroic historical counterparts; as when Montmorency sees a cat in Marlow High Street:

We were, as I have said, returning from a dip, and half-way up the High Street a cat darted out from one of the houses in front of us, and began to trot across the road. Montmorency gave a cry of joy—the cry of a stern warrior who sees his enemy given over to his hands—the sort of cry Cromwell might have uttered when the Scots came down the hill—and flew after his prey.

He doesn’t say which of Cromwell’s battles he’s referring to, maybe to Cromwell’s decisive victory over them at the battle of Worcester in 1651. But the point is the humour in the vast dysjunction between a dog spying a cat in a road and one of the great battles of British history.

2. My other point is more specifically lexical, meaning specifically about language, and more specifically than that, about quotes. Like many comic authors before and after him, Jerome creates a comic effect by juxtaposing descriptions of his clumsy mates and their scrappy dog with solemn and portentous quotes, the more solemn and portentous the funnier the effect, and what language is more solemn and portentous than quotes from those twin peaks of the English language, Shakespeare and the Bible?

Thus he ends a comic passage about his school days and the unfairness of the way the only boy in his class who loved schoolwork was always ill and off school, whereas J and his mates, who hated schoolwork, always showed disgusting good health no matter how hard they tried to get ill and get days off school – he ends this passage with a mockingly solemn aphorism from the Bible:

Such is life; and we are but as grass that is cut down, and put into the oven…

Although the naughty schoolboy in him can’t help adding a comic and demotic phrase to the end of this quote:

Such is life; and we are but as grass that is cut down, and put into the oven and baked.

You can almost imagine J or one of his friends solemnly intoning these phrases in the persona of a dreary vicar, delivering a wise and learned mock sermon on the subject of Harris falling into a stream or George driven mad with frustration at having a tin of juicy pineapple but no can opener to open it with.

(Compare and contrast with the use of Biblical quotes and phraseology by Jerome’s contemporary, Rudyard Kipling, who was saturated in the Bible, its phrases and rhythms, and aspired to, and sometimes matched, the solemnity of the original, as in Recessional.)

So much for comically inappropriate use of Biblical phraseology, as to Shakespeare, comic characters for centuries have used tags from the Bard out of context in order to heighten a comic moment. Thus when George forgets to wind his watch and wakes in the early hours to see, with panic, that it is a quarter past eight and he needs to be at the office by nine, his response is to repeat in comic mode an exclamation from Hamlet, tragically intense in its original context, but long since watered down to become a comic expostulation:

‘Angels and ministers of grace defend us!’ exclaimed George; ‘and here have I got to be in the City by nine.’

3. As I wrote this I realised that alongside the mock heroic presence of these two reliable old warhorses, the Bible and Shakespeare, in the text, there is a notable absence: there are no Latin tags. Jerome had a surprisingly harsh upbringing in the East End, attending a day school, unlike most of the authors and critics of the time, who enjoyed the blessings of a preparatory school followed by public school followed by Oxford or Cambridge, all of which of course, soaked them in the Classics and explains why later Victorian literature is littered with Latin tags which ‘everyone’ was supposed to understand.

Not so Jerome. The absence of Latin is one of the subtle indicators of the slightly lower class vibe of the text which contemporary critics picked up on and criticised (see section on Demotics, below).

The narrator as raconteur

This wide range of comic effects is possible because the narrator early on establishes his persona as a raconteur, a story-teller and memoirist, which allows him very casually to introduce as many memories and incidents and anecdotes as he wants. The narrator’s tone and voice immediately create a very relaxed, flexible and roomy atmosphere. It’s indicated by the number of passages or sequences which overtly begin as memories and tales:

  • I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch—hay fever, I fancy it was…
  • I remember my brother-in-law going for a short sea trip once…
  • Another fellow I knew went for a week’s voyage round the coast, and, before they started, the steward came to him to ask whether he would pay for each meal as he had it, or arrange beforehand for the whole series…
  • He always reminds me of my poor Uncle Podger…
  • I remember a friend of mine, buying a couple of cheeses at Liverpool…
  • I lived with a man once who used to make me mad that way. He would loll on the sofa and watch me doing things by the hour together…
  • I remember a holiday of mine being completely ruined one late autumn by our paying attention to the weather report of the local newspaper…
  • There was a boy at our school, we used to call him Sandford and Merton…
  • It was my misfortune once to go for a water picnic with two ladies of this kind [fussed about their dresses]. We did have a lively time…
  • One golden morning of a sunny day, I leant against the low stone wall that guarded a little village church, and I smoked, and drank in deep, calm gladness from the sweet, restful scene…
  • Speaking of comic songs and parties, reminds me of a rather curious incident at which I once assisted…
  • I remember being terribly upset once up the river (in a figurative sense, I mean). I was out with a young lady—cousin on my mother’s side…
  • I remember going up once from Staines to Windsor—a stretch of water peculiarly rich in these mechanical monstrosities—with a party containing three ladies of this description…
  • I knew a young fellow once, who was studying to play the bagpipes…
  • I was one of a party who hired an up-river boat one summer, for a few days’ trip….

Some highlights

Passages that stood out for me included:

  • the time Harris not only got lost in the Hampton Court Maze but persuaded a whole load of other people to follow him until they were all lost
  • the time J took some young ladies dressed in the latest fashion for a boat trip and the comedy of their things getting wet and dirty
  • the comic passage about the time he was having a soulful moment in a graveyard which was interrupted by an interfering old man who wanted to show him all the tombs and monuments
  • the extended description of Harris making a complete fool of himself trying to sing a comic song after a dinner party
  • the comic anecdote of the German professor who sang a tragic song about a dying maiden but who two mischievous German students had told the foreign audience was actually a cheerfully comic song so that the foreigners guffawed and tittered all the way through, rendering the professor speechless with anger
  • the notion that the kettle can hear you expressing a wish for tea and so deliberately refuses to boil, so the best thing is to talk loudly about how the last thing you want is tea, then the perishing thing will boil, alright!
  • how, back in good King Henry’s day, the innocent day tripper couldn’t go anywhere without bumping into the bloody king and Ann Boleyn on one of their many snogging trips
  • the procession of our heroes down Marlow High Street after a shopping expedition for food and drink, accompanied by the ‘boys’ of almost every shop in the town, plus random urchins and various stray dogs

by the time we had finished, we had as fine a collection of boys with baskets following us around as heart could desire; and our final march down the middle of the High Street, to the river, must have been as imposing a spectacle as Marlow had seen for many a long day.

Jerome’s demotic tone

Nothing excuses violence of language and coarseness of expression…

Contemporary critics, upper-middle class to a man, tutted about Jerome’s slangy expressions and disapproved of the lower-middle-class character of the protagonists. They disliked their levity, their lack of respect for their elders and betters and authority figures of all types. Nothing is taken seriously, everything is debunked. Education.

I don’t understand German myself. I learned it at school, but forgot every word of it two years after I had left, and have felt much better ever since.

Or the high minded activities of worthy philanthropists.

In the church is a memorial to Mrs. Sarah Hill, who bequeathed 1 pound annually, to be divided at Easter, between two boys and two girls who ‘have never been undutiful to their parents; who have never been known to swear or to tell untruths, to steal, or to break windows.’ Fancy giving up all that for five shillings a year! It is not worth it.

Even the modern reader can, I think, detect moments when Jerome seems to be deliberately using slang expressions for effect:

  • She was nuts on public-houses, was England’s Virgin Queen.
  • For once in a way, we men are able to show our taste in colours, and I think we come out very natty, if you ask me.
  • We—George, Harris, and myself—took a ‘raw ’un’ up with us once last season, and we plied him with the customary stretchers about the wonderful things we had done all the way up. [where ‘stretchers’ seems to mean tall tales or whoppers]

The narrator has a habit of adding ‘like’ at the end of sentences, which is clearly non-orthodox and deliberately put in to make the tone just that bit East End.

  • Neither the beef nor the strawberries and cream seemed happy, either—seemed discontented like.
  • We had had a sail—a good all-round exciting, interesting sail—and now we thought we would have a row, just for a change like.

Equally non-U is the way the tone of many of the passages is surprisingly immoderate.

I never see a steam launch but I feel I should like to lure it to a lonely part of the river, and there, in the silence and the solitude, strangle it.

Take the extended passage about the wretched people who put up loud signs warning boaters from mooring on their river frontages which I quoted above, in which J tells us he’d like to burn down their houses and Harris declares he’d like to slaughter their entire families and sing comic songs on the ruins!

In addition to humorously contemplating murder and arson, the narrator cheerfully confesses to having, as a boy, been a thief, pure and simple:

Having acquired a taste for the water, I did a good deal of rafting in various suburban brickfields—an exercise providing more interest and excitement than might be imagined, especially when you are in the middle of the pond and the proprietor of the materials of which the raft is constructed suddenly appears on the bank, with a big stick in his hand.

And appears to recommend stealing a boat in the here and now:

To those who do contemplate making Oxford their starting-place, I would say, take your own boat—unless, of course, you can take someone else’s without any possible danger of being found out.

And the text contains a number of incitements to actual vandalism, which I can well imagine the property-owning classes and all right-minded critics sharply disapproving of.

Of course the entrance [to the Wargrave cut off the Thames] is studded with posts and chains, and surrounded with notice boards, menacing all kinds of torture, imprisonment, and death to everyone who dares set scull upon its waters—I wonder some of these riparian boors don’t claim the air of the river and threaten everyone with forty shillings fine who breathes it—but the posts and chains a little skill will easily avoid; and as for the boards, you might, if you have five minutes to spare, and there is nobody about, take one or two of them down and throw them into the river.

The three chaps come over as fairly middle class with their ‘drats’ and ‘dashes’ and ‘come on old chap’s so I was surprised when J admits a more working class accent in his circle. He describes going boating with a lady friend and how much it changed her temper for the worst. But it was her accent which surprised me.

‘Oh, drat the man!’ she would exclaim, when some unfortunate sculler would get in her way; ‘why don’t he look where he’s going?’

And it’s a telling detail that J doesn’t like Maidenhead because it is ‘too snobby’ and la-di-dah:

The London Journal duke always has his ‘little place’ at Maidenhead; and the heroine of the three-volume novel always dines there when she goes out on the spree with somebody else’s husband.

To summarise: it’s not as posh as it seems. In fact it’s odd to think a book so entirely associated with Hooray Henries dressed in boaters and blazers, hiring punts and hampers and recreating what they considered to be the book’s ineffably upper class and joshing tone, was ever criticised for its lower class attitude

It is just a comedy, but it’s a good deal more rough, anti-social and subversive than most people remember.

It is an ancient place, Streatley, dating back, like most river-side towns and villages, to British and Saxon times. Goring is not nearly so pretty a little spot to stop at as Streatley, if you have your choice; but it is passing fair enough in its way, and is nearer the railway in case you want to slip off without paying your hotel bill.

What he thought of the nineteenth century

  • some quaint-perched eyrie on the cliffs of Time, from whence the surging waves of the nineteenth century would sound far-off and faint.
  • The sun had got more powerful by the time we had finished breakfast, and the wind had dropped, and it was as lovely a morning as one could desire. Little was in sight to remind us of the nineteenth century.
  • I like to watch an old boatman rowing, especially one who has been hired by the hour. There is something so beautifully calm and restful about his method. It is so free from that fretful haste, that vehement striving, that is every day becoming more and more the bane of nineteenth-century life.
  • Mr. W. Lee—five times Mayor of Abingdon—was, no doubt, a benefactor to his generation, but I hope there are not many of his kind about in this overcrowded nineteenth century.

A purple patch about the river Thames

The river—with the sunlight flashing from its dancing wavelets, gilding gold the grey-green beech-trunks, glinting through the dark, cool wood paths, chasing shadows o’er the shallows, flinging diamonds from the mill-wheels, throwing kisses to the lilies, wantoning with the weirs’ white waters, silvering moss-grown walls and bridges, brightening every tiny townlet, making sweet each lane and meadow, lying tangled in the rushes, peeping, laughing, from each inlet, gleaming gay on many a far sail, making soft the air with glory—is a golden fairy stream.

But the river—chill and weary, with the ceaseless rain-drops falling on its brown and sluggish waters, with a sound as of a woman, weeping low in some dark chamber; while the woods, all dark and silent, shrouded in their mists of vapour, stand like ghosts upon the margin; silent ghosts with eyes reproachful, like the ghosts of evil actions, like the ghosts of friends neglected—is a spirit-haunted water through the land of vain regrets.

He’s fallen in the water

In chapter 13 they moor in a grassy spot for lunch. Harris makes himself comfortable on the loose edge of a little stream, starts to carve the appetising steak pie they’ve brought with them but, before anyone can do anything, the earth gives way and he falls into the stream, emerging moments later from amid the reeds muddy, wet and cross. The steak pie isn’t too happy, either.

The incident itself is fairly funny, but two things make it Jeromian. One is that Harris doesn’t just fall in the water, he vanishes! One minute he’s there, something distracts the other two for a second or so and, when they turn back, Harris has vanished leaving them utterly bewildered! For a moment they are thunderstruck… until they hear a wet groaning coming from the reeds. The book is full of moment like this, not just a bit funny, but extreme, like theatrical coups de grace, like a kind of verbal special effect, which stuns author and reader alike.

The second element is the cod Biblical, mockingly philosophical tone of the narrator as he describes the scene, a tone which marinates the entire book, by assuming a high-falutin’ tone in effect mocking all things earnest and pompous, mocking teachers and vicars and property owners and stationmasters and sextons, mocking Great Writers and Lofty Sentiments; contrasting the Timeless Wisdom of the Books of Books and the Immortal Spirit of Nature with the clumsy reality of three hapless young chaps who keep falling in the water and endlessly fighting.

Harris believes to this day that George and I planned it all beforehand. Thus does unjust suspicion follow even the most blameless for, as the poet says, ‘Who shall escape calumny?’ Who, indeed!

Shakespeare, again.


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The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont (1607)

It is the spring of 1607 and a play is just about to start in the Blackfriars theatre. Unlike Shakespeare’s Globe theatre across the river, the Blackfriars is not open to the elements but roofed, and it is also small, meaning tickets are more expensive (sixpence compared to a penny admission at the Globe). Not surprisingly, it caters to a more upmarket audience, including courtiers and men-about-town who like to think themselves a cut above the middle-class merchants and artisans of ever-expanding London. The Blackfriars was a venue for ‘coterie drama’ for gentleman ‘wits’, in contrast to the more popular drama of writers like Shakespeare and Thomas Heywood across the water in Southwark.

One last point. The Blackfriars theatre was associated with the fashion for boy actors who grew increasingly popular from the turn of the century, specifically the members of the troupe called The Children of the Queen’s Revels. These boy actors were generally between the ages of 8 and 12! Yes, boys originally played all the roles in this play and many like them. Girls, women, heroines, matrons and old ladies, dashing heroes and crotchety old men – all played by boys.

The prologue

Anyway, a new play is about to begin and the actor playing the Prologue steps forward dressed in a long, black velvet cloak and a garland of bays to address the audience, setting the scene for the troupe’s new play which is entitled The London Merchant. But he hasn’t even completed three lines of the prologue before he is rudely interrupted by a member of the audience, who climbs up onstage to talk to him.

It quickly becomes clear that this man is George, a London grocer, and he starts decrying the new play before it’s even begun, moaning that it’s another one of those satires which mock honest merchants like himself.

Taken aback, the Prologue asks what he’d like instead. The merchant replies he wants to see something which stars a merchant like himself, and tales of romance and adventure. At which point his wife, Nell, starts yelling from down in the audience that she wants to see a play about a grocer who is a knightly hero and kills a lion with a pestle! – a random, off-the-wall suggestion which the loudmouth grocer promptly takes up.

The Prologue complains that they should have told him this request month ago, it’s too late now, they’ve rehearsed the new play and have no boys free to play a merchant. ‘I’ve got the solution’, says the merchant, ‘let my boy Rafe play him, his acting and impersonations are the highlight of every party’. And he promptly gets Rafe to prove it by hauling him onstage and getting him to declaim part of Hotspur’s speech from Henry IV part 1, loudly and confidently.

The Prologue reluctantly agrees that Rafe is pretty good, and tasks one of the assistants to take him backstage to be rigged up in acting apparel, then the Prologue asks for the merchant and his wife to be seated. Comically, they hustle and bustle themselves among the stools on the stage. (This was another feature of the Blackfriars theatre – that supposed wits and gallants paid extra to sit onstage throughout the play, making comments on it or chatting among themselves or grandstanding to the audience.)

By sitting on the stage you have a signd patent to engrosse the whole commodity of Censure; may lawfully presume to be a Girder; and stand at the helme to steere the passage of scaenes; yet no man shall once offer to hinder you from obtaining the title of an insolent over-weening Coxcombe…. If you know not ye author, you may raile against him, and peradventure so behave your selfe, that you may enforce the author to know you.
(The Gull’s Horn-Book by Thomas Dekker, 1609)

The grocer and his wife now rudely push themselves and their stools in among these posh gentlemen, presumably causing amusement in the wider audience down in auditorium at this breach of decorum.

Now the Prologue recommences his speech and out of this initial confusion it emerges that the play is going to have three distinct strands:

  1. The original plot of The London Merchant in which two young men – gentle but stupid Humphrey and charismatic but unpredictable Jasper Merrythought – vie for the hand of the merchant Venturewell’s daughter, Luce, with the usual round of complications.
  2. Rafe’s narrative – The Knight of the Burning Pestle – in which he dresses as a traditional knight errant of romance, is assisted by his squire and page (a fellow apprentice named Tim and a dwarf named George), declaims high heroic poetry and has a series of mock heroic adventures, some of which are based on Cervantes’ recent novel Don Quixote, but many of which stem from the same Iberian romances and mock heroic romances.
  3. Finally, the continual interruptions and commentary from George and his wife, specially whenever Rafe enters – applauding his every move when he’s onstage, and barracking the other actors and demanding his return whenever he’s absent, plus their running commentary on almost everything else, including the reactions of the audience and the gentlemen on stools.

It’s funny but it’s a real ragbag. Jasper, the rascally apprentice, is fired by merchant Venturewell, but manages to ravish young Luce off to the romantic venue of Waltham Forest. There’s an episode where the couple lie down to sleep, and Luce indeed falls asleep, at which point Jasper undergoes a curious transformation and decides he will wake her, threaten her with his sword, declaring he must have her blood to avenge her father’s wrongs (in booting Jasper out of his apprenticeship). This is ludicrous to begin with but is made doubly so by the immediate intervention of Nell the grocer’s wife, who’s never liked him and now starts damning his behaviour.

Later the pallid, useless apprentice Humphrey enters and confronts Jasper, who promptly beats him black and blue, leading Nell the grocer’s wife to not only berate him again, but cross over to poor HUmphrey and offer him several herbal remedies for his poor bruises.

Meanwhile we learn that Jasper’s parents are Old Merrythought and Mistress Merrythought, and their younger son, Michael, still lives with them. Old Merrythought is a strange ‘comic’ creation, he speaks almost entirely in songs, unstoppably answering every question and accusation and request by singing an excerpt from one of the many popular songs of the time.

OLD MERRYTHOUGHT: I would not be a serving-man
To carry the cloak-bag still,
Nor would I be a falconer
The greedy hawks to fill;
But I would be in a good house,
And have a good master too;
But I would eat and drink of the best,
And no work would I do.

He is utterly spendthrift, gay and merry, giving absolutely no thought for the morrow, and so drives his wife mad with his careless insouciance. In fact his wife has determined to leave him because he has spent all their money on drinking and partying.

OLD MERRYTHOUGHT: This it is that keeps life and soul together, mirth; this is the philosopher’s stone that they write so much on, that keeps a man ever young.

Nell, the grocer’s wife, once again is fiercely critical of Old M, not least in the scenes where he shows his complete indifference to his wife, for being ‘an ingrant old man to use his bed-fellow so scurvily’.

The London Merchant moves towards a big scene in the final act, where Venturewell has recaptured his daughter Luce, from Jasper, and locked her in his house, preparatory to her marrying the good apprentice, Humphrey. Jasper concocts a Cunning Plan, which is to pay a boy and some carriers to convey a letter to Venturewell saying that he, Jasper, has died and he has one dying request, can his corpse be conveyed into Venturewell’s house so that Luce can pay her last respects, say goodbye, and be ready to marry Humphrey.

As you might expect, this is a scam, the coffin arrives and Jasper is in it alright, lying still under a black velvet cloth. Venturewell allows it into the living room and leaves Luce to weep and mourn and declaim a page of sad verse over the body of her beloved, before Jasper suddenly leaps up out of the coffin and nearly scares her to death. He quickly gets her to swap places, covers her with the velvet cloth and gets the boy and carrier to convey her out, as if carrying Jasper to a cemetery.

Meanwhile, Jasper hides and covers his face in white flour so that, when Venturewell comes back on stage, Jasper suddenly appears like a ghost, terrifying Venturewell and threatening to haunt him for the rest of his life until he makes things right, beats and punishes Humphrey. Poor Humphrey enters at this stage and is promptly beaten for the second time in the play.

This is more or less the climax of the main play as Venturewell promises to do absolutely anything to make things right with the ghost and avoid being haunted – at which point Jasper reveals that he is not in fact dead, invites Luce back onstage, and gets the relieved Venturewell to agree to their being married. Finally.

Meanwhile, this narrative has been interwoven with a series of comic mock-heroic escapades featuring Rafe.

RAFE: My name is Rafe; I am an Englishman,
(As true as steel, a hearty Englishman,)
And prentice to a grocer in the Strand

It is clear from the moment he comes back onstage, hurriedly dressed up in the best knightly costume that the boy players can be spared, and sets about telling his squire (Tim the apprentice) and George the dwarf that they must no longer call him Rafe but address him as ‘the Knight of the Burning Pestle’ and so on, that his segments are going to be the most amusing.

RAFE: I charge you that from henceforth you never call me by any other name but “the right courteous and valiant Knight of the Burning Pestle;” and that you never call any female by the name of a woman or wench, but “fair lady,” if she have her desires, if not, “distressed damsel”; that you call all forests and heaths “deserts,” and all horses “palfreys.”

Three of his adventures stick out. He and his liegemen travel out to Waltham Forest (where their tracks cross, at various points, Jasper and Luce, and Mistress Merrythought and her son, Michael) and put up at the Bell Inn which is transformed, in his imagination, into a castle.

The host of the Bell twigs to the joke and then Rafe to visit the cave of the monster Barbaroso who is, in fact, the village surgeon-barber, and where they find three ‘victims’ languishing in his ‘dungeons’, who are in fact a customer having his hair cut and two others undergoing the totally quackish treatment Elizabethan surgeon-barbers were famous for. (The red and white swirly pole outside barbershops to this day recalls the times when surgeon-barbers let blood as well as shaving and trimming their customers.)

And lastly Rafe leads a number of his fellow prentices out to Moorfields in what, onstage, amounts to half a dozen small boys drilling with toy weapons, but in Rafe and the grocer’s imagination, becomes an army training before setting off to the wars in France.

But, Nell, I will
have Ralph do a very notable matter now, to
the eternal honour and glory of all grocers.

All the way through Rafe’s high-blown heroic poetry and noble sentiments, especially when he meets a damsel in distress (for example Mistress Merrythought when she gets lost in Waltham Forest), are undercut by the fact that he occasionally lets slip that he is in fact a grocer’s apprentice whose girlfriend is Susan, a cobbler’s daughter from Milk Street.

What’s odd because it’s inconsistent about these scenes is that we all understand they have been extemporised i.e. they’re not part of the rehearsed play being performed for us – and yet Rafe and the other characters in his ‘romance’ parts of the plot – the innkeeper and his daughter, the barber Barbaroso and his victims – all play along with the gag. This doesn’t really make sense – how could all these people be prepared, dressed and rehearsed with no time?

And it’s even weirder, because they are not only – on the face of it – extemporising with impressive speed, they are extemporising a play within a play within a play: because not only is Rafe 1. performing a play whose scenes 2. have been inserted into The London Merchant, but 3. he is shown explaining to the actors playing an innkeeper or a barber, that they in fact need to 3. speak and act on another level, as heroic characters from romance.

Some of Rafe’s scenes closely echo scenes in Cervantes’ long fiction Don Quixote, the first part of which had been published only a few years earlier, in 1605, although there is scholarly argument about whether Beaumont took the scenes from Cervantes or from earlier mock heroic comedies which are common sources for both.

The Rafe plot concludes after the grocer and his wife loudly demand a heroic ending for their Rafe and so, once the Jasper-Luce-Venturewell happy ending is tied up and they’ve exited the stage, Rafe staggers onstage with a fake arrow through his neck, as if mortally and heroically wounded in the wars, before delivering a long and ‘moving’ death speech and expiring to the floor – despite the disapproval of one of the main players:

WIFE: Now, good husband, let him come out and die.
CITIZEN: He shall, Nell.—Ralph, come away quickly, and die, boy!
BOY: ‘Twill be very unfit he should die, sir, upon no occasion — and in a comedy too.

Nell the grocer’s wife is beside herself with emotion, and immediately makes Rafe get to his feet and take a bow and introduces him to the fine gentlemen sitting on their stools and commends him to the audience. Everything has a happy ending and the audience go away happy.

The title

The title has about three sources and/or meanings. The pestle was one of the many signs hanging outside the shops of tradesmen in London, the pestle from a mortar and pestle used to grind up the spices sold at a grocer’s shop.

The pestle can also be thought of as a kind of weapon, along the lines of a club, and appears as such on the heraldic shield which the players quickly knock up for Rafe. And on the level of sexual innuendo which absolutely drenched Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, it symbolises a penis, and the burning sensation can be attributed to the very common sexually transmitted diseases of the period, syphilis and gonorrhea.


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There is no author’s name on any of the early printed editions of the play and the tradition grew up that it was one of the many collaborations between Beaumont and John Fletcher. Thus the 1913 edition of the play which Project Gutenberg has transferred online indicates that the play was written by both authors. But according to the editor of the 1986 New Mermaid edition, Michael Hattaway, recent, detailed studies of the play’s language have conclusively proved it was by Beaumont alone.

Jacobean comedies

Elizabethan art

17th century history

Restoration comedies

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